God is close when we are least aware
(Readings: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33)
Introduction to Mass
The readings this Sunday show how experiences of doubt or defeat or anguish or fear can reveal Godís presence and activity to us and strengthen our faith in him. Letís begin mass by asking God's forgiveness for the times when we've not trusted deeply enough in him.
Thereís a struggle that goes on very often in the minds of religious people between the conviction that God is real, that he makes himself present and involves himself in our lives, and a tendency towards doubt - the suspicion that nags at us that God doesn't exist, or that even if he does, he frequently seems absent or distant or hidden from us. The readings this Sunday, I think, are relevant to this experience.
In the first reading we find the prophet Elijah going through a period of doubt and disillusion. His efforts to stick up for God's cause have met with complete defeat and so heís overwhelmed with a feeling of desolation and exhaustion. He loses his sense of Godís presence and support.
The background to this section of the Book of Kings is that Elijah has been engaged in a tense dispute with the Queen, Jezebel, who was trying to destroy the traditional Israelite faith in God and bring in the pagan religion of some of Israel's neighbours.
Elijah had had several spectacular successes, but the result was only that the queen unleashed an even more intense persecution of the prophets, and issued a death warrant particularly on Elijah. So Elijah ended up in hiding, feeling completely dejected, and in fact a few lines earlier on in the chapter has says to God, ďI've had enough. Just take my life now".
At this point the author of the book of Kings starts to use signs and metaphors. All the traditional signs of God's presence are paraded before Elijah - a mighty wind, an earthquake, a huge fire. None of these sensational signs gave Elijah any inspiration or guidance or any release from his feeling of defeat.
But last of all comes a gentle breeze Ė a more literal translation would be, "the voice of a thin silence". And itís at this point that a sort of revelation dawns on Elijah. It's precisely at his lowest point that God is actually with him, even though it doesn't feel like it. It's in his sense of absence and emptiness and despair and exhaustion that God is actually close to him, bearing him up, far more than in his previous successes and victories.
In the Old Testament this represents an advance in the knowledge of who God is, and what he's like, and what shape our relationship with God is likely to take.
When things are going well in our lives, when we feel confident and secure and satisfied we either tend to forget about God or else we think of God as a sort of guarantor of our success and prosperity. Itís then that God finds it most difficult to make inroads into our complacency.
The reality is that God is more likely to be close to us when we're suffering because we stick up for some moral principle in the face of disagreement or even persecution, like Elijah; or when we've persisted in some effort of unselfish concern for someone, without any gratitude or acknowledgement; or perhaps when we're brought low by illness. These are all the sorts of demoralising experience that make us wonder "what's the point?" Ė we start to have fundamental doubts and anxieties and a sense of pointlessness, and we can feel that God has abandoned us somehow.
It's then that - however much we can't sense it or feel it in any realistic way - God is close to us, supporting us, being present in the "thin voice of silence" rather than in any obvious and grandiose signs. And I think that in time, when we look back on those periods, we can often see that God was actually present exactly at the times when we felt that he was most absent or hidden.
If we move onto the gospel passage, we find another instance of faith under stress, this time by fear - another emotion which, if we understand it in the wrong way, can drive out any sense of the reality of God.
The disciples get caught in the boat when a great storm blows up. Already anxious, they then mistake Jesus for a ghost when he appears. So they were terrified, St. Matthew says.
As I was trying to say last Sunday about the feeding of the five thousand, thereís no reason to doubt that thereís a factual basis to this incident, even if it didnít take place exactly as itís described here. Thereís no reason to doubt that Jesus did actually perform the types of miracle that the gospel writers said he did.
The more important point is that Christ never presented himself as a magician or a wonder-worker and never performed miracles to prove himself, or for money, or even to improve peopleís material welfare in the narrow sense. There was no miracle of conjuring up a winning lottery-ticket, or whatever the equivalent was in those days, because that sort of thing wouldn't have been any kind of sign of what God's Kingdom is about. All Jesusí miracles had a sign-value: they revealed some aspect of God's Reign.
And the aspect of God's Kingdom that this particular miracle revealed was the aspect that we were talking about regarding Elijah. "Why are you doubting? Why are you afraid?" says Jesus. If the disciples' faith had been a bit deeper they would have known that God is present even in moments of fear and panic and loss of control - and in fact, he is especially present to us during those kinds of experiences.
Peter's impulsive behaviour only underlines the point. When his fright, or his lack of courage, gets the better of him, it's Christ who holds him up, not himself. He stays above the water because God is close to him, not because of his own resources of strength and confidence.
Of course, it's humiliating to be overcome by panic, like the disciples, and it's debilitating to suffer from profound doubt or depression, like Elijah. But it's one of the ways that the gospel message contradicts our conventional ways of thinking that it's precisely at those moments, when we're vulnerable or when our weakness is exposed in some way, that God is closer to us than when we're feeling strong and confident about our abilities and our achievements and so on. And often it takes an experience of having our illusions and securities toppled to wrench us out of a shallow and complacent faith into a real relationship with God.
Those are the themes that link up these two different passages of the Bible and the different experiences of Elijah and Christís disciples. Iíd like to finish by reading out a short prayer that I came across recently, which expresses the value of fear or doubt or anguish in helping us make progress in the spiritual life:
Whenever I experience fear, I identify myself with the weak and humble of the world. But may my sensitivity and vulnerability lead me to prayer and self-sacrifice on behalf of those less fortunate than I. As I give of myself to others, so paradoxically do I grow in strength until I can justly take my place among those who contend for the coming of the Kingdom of God. (by Martin Israel.)